Rachel Austin, Mary SeverChristina Vizcarra and Andrew Crowther have been awarded National Science Foundation grants.

Profs. Austin, Sever and Vizcarra are collaborating to learn more about the connection between lead exposure and the brain. To that end, they have been awarded a three-year, $294,000 NSF grant. Children exposed to lead in early childhood can become developmentally impaired, and some researchers believe childhood lead exposure may be linked to autism and schizophrenia. The Chemistry of Life Processes Program in the NSF's Chemistry Division is funding the team to study the neurochemistry of a small brain-specific protein, metallothionein-3 (also known as MT-3) that has been identified because of its ability to inhibit the growth of neurons. "It is important to understand the factors that control the development of neurons and to understand how toxic metals damage the brain," says Austin.

Mary Sever
Prof. Mary Sever

The brain functions in part because neurons connect to one another. Too many or too few connections can cause the brain to malfunction and can lead to disorders. Lead has been shown to affect the way that neurons grow. In this grant the three professors, with Sever as the principal investigator, will study the way that MT-3, a small protein that regulates the growth of neurons, works when it is bound to zinc and copper, which are thought to be the metals it normally binds to, and lead, a metal that has no known beneficial function in brains. In particular they will look at how MT-3 interacts with actin, another protein involved in cell growth.

Actin is the most abundant protein in many cells and performs an impressive list of roles—from helping cells move to separating cells when they divide into two. Thousands to millions of actin proteins assemble into long, stick-like structures, which cells can use to perform mechanical work. There are hundreds of accessory proteins in human cells that control the timing of actin assembly. MT3 has an enigmatic interaction with actin that Vizcarra, Austin, and Sever seek to understand in greater detail.

Prof. Rachel Austin
Austin, the Diana T. and P. Roy Vagelos Professor of Chemistry, joined the faculty in 2015. She holds a Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. In addition to studying the role of metals in the brain, her lab develops and studies catalysts for biofuel production, and studies enzymes that degrade oil in oil spills. Here she discusses how she became interested in the field of chemistry. Austin is also involved with active learning methods to be effective to the broadest possible student population; the Barnard Library and Academic Information Services honored her for these efforts.

A graduate of Knox College with a Ph.D. from Purdue University, Sever joined the Barnard faculty in 2010. She studies the effects that metal ions and small molecules have on signal pathways in neuronal cells.

Prof. Christina Vizcarra
Vizcarra graduated from the University of Kansas and holds a Ph.D. from Caltech. She joined Barnard in 2015. Her lab focuses on actin, and abnormalities that are linked to hereditary deafness.

Prof. Andrew Crowther was recently awarded a $185,000 grant by the National Science Foundation entitled “RUI: The Vibrational Structure of Atomically-Precise Nanostructures: From Molecular Clusters to Quantum Dots.”  

Crowther is a physical chemist interested in the fundamental molecular processes and properties of nanostructures—structures that are 1,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. The Crowther Laboratory uses micro-Raman spectroscopy, a measurement technique that provides structural “fingerprints” by which molecules and materials can be identified and their vibrational and electronic properties investigated.

The funded work, performed in collaboration with Prof. Jonathan Owen in the Columbia University Department of Chemistry, is focused on

Prof. Andrew Crowther
understanding the vibrational structure of large, symmetric molecules called clusters, made up of tens of atoms, and larger nanocrystals called quantum dots, composed of hundreds to thousands of atoms in an ordered lattice. Crowther and his group will determine the vibrational structure of these clusters and quantum dots, which are synthesized by the Owen group.

A detailed understanding of these properties is necessary to fully realize their applications in solid-state lighting (such as LEDs) and other energy technologies.  

Prior to joining Barnard, Crowther received his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and performed postdoctoral research at Columbia University.

Lede image: A fluorescent image of neuronal cells. Neuronal chemistry features prominently in Austin, Sever and Vizcarra's funded research.